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Allison Gauss
set nonprofit goals

Set Small Goals to Achieve Big Impact

Nonprofits are audacious. They make it their mission to eradicate problems that seem permanent and improve systems that that seem broken. Even small nonprofits dream big.

Whether an organization has multiple high-level objectives or one overarching goal, their work is long-term and complex. The first step to creating a better future is envisioning it. In most cases, though, a nonprofit cannot complete their mission with only one program or initiative.

To stay focused on their end goal and make steady progress, organizations must set specific, incremental goals and hold themselves accountable. Learn how big impact is driven by smaller goals and how to plan the path to your outcomes, one step at a time.

The Forest and The Trees

There’s a saying that you can “miss the forest for the trees,” meaning you lose sight of the larger vision or goal because you’re too concerned with the small details. This can definitely happen at nonprofits, where managing staff, volunteers, budgets, and fundraising can distract you from your mission.

But nonprofits also run the risk of stalling their work by focusing too much on the end goal without making an actionable plan. To illustrate the problem, let’s look at an example. Rebecca works for an animal welfare nonprofit and their mission is to end population control euthanasia of domestic animals in their city. This is a big goal that will involve the cooperation of many clinics and people, but Rebecca is eager to take action.

First, she starts calling all the local veterinarians to see if they’re willing to volunteer to perform free spay and neuter procedures. She sets up a table outside her local pet store to inform owners about the need to spay and neuter and she tries to get a meeting with the local animal control department. Rebecca is very busy, trying to achieve her mission any way she can.

A year later, Rebecca is exhausted and has barely made a dent in the number of animals euthanized. She was so focused on the end result that she didn’t take the time to succeed at the smaller tasks that spur real change.

Setting Impact Goals

To reach a big, audacious goal, you have to break it into smaller goals and tackle each one with a plan. Smaller, more achievable objectives may not be as inspiring and exciting as your overarching mission, but they allow you to make measurable progress. For example, when someone wants to become more healthy and fit, they’re often advised to choose one small lifestyle change and stick with it.

Rebecca can still work toward her mission of ending population control euthanasia on animals in her city, but she’s better off focusing on one or two tangible outcomes at a time. Rebecca decides to set annual goals for her organization to advance their mission.

She starts by thinking about her mission and what achieving it would look like. For her city to end euthanasia, they will need to control the population through spaying and neutering and create an efficient shelter and adoption program.

Rebecca sets two simple, but impactful, goals that will move her cause forward.

1. Organize 200 free spay or neuter procedures by getting vets to donate their time and expertise.

2. Distribute flyers and other materials on the importance of spaying and neutering pets to every animal clinic and pet store in her city.

These goals may seem small compared to her mission, but by accomplishing them, she’s making real progress. If she follows through, her organization will help prevent population growth and educate many pet owners about the benefits of spaying and neutering.

Without tangible goals, Rebecca was working very hard but her efforts were unorganized and ineffective. Once she chose smaller action items, she was able to measure her results against those goals and plan next steps.

Planning for the Future

Ultimately, a goal doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a plan for how to achieve it. We all want to end hunger and give every child an education, but what separates nonprofits from the rest of the population is that they are taking action and implementing strategies in an effort to solve problems like these.

Social impact happens when devoted people set goals for change and hold themselves accountable. Accountability is another reason it’s important to set smaller, measurable goals. In order to evaluate and revise your work strategy you have to be able to measure the success of your actions.

When you only have one big goal, you can only really measure its success as you creep closer to the result. While every bit of progress is important, setting standards and deadlines helps you determine if you’re being as effective as possible along the way.

Does your organization use annual or quarterly goals to guide your progress? Consider looking at your mission and coming up with tangible results that will bring you closer to your end goal.


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